An espresso with…
Denis Chang

April 10, 2018

Gypsy Guitar

Besides Japan, it’s very rare to encounter a great Gypsy jazz musician elsewhere in Asia. We are very grateful to have the chance to interview Denis Chang, a brilliant Canadian Taiwanese guitarist and founder of DC music school, who enthusiastically shares his vision about Gypsy jazz with us.
 
 

Is this your first time in Tokyo to host a workshop here?
It’s my second time in Tokyo, but it’s the first time I host a workshop here.
 
What are you going to cover in your workshop today?
Most of the players in Japan are quite advanced. I’ll see who comes and adjust on the spot, but I would like to share how I learnt this music and my philosophy. I won’t tell people to do this or that, but I will explain what I do, why I do that and how that related to history.
 
 
How do you see Gypsy music scene in Asia?
Ah... this is an interesting question. I think in Japan, the general level of musicians is extremely high. We did a gig last night at the next door, I was surprised that 95% in the audience were musicians. They know the songs well and I can tell that besides really loving the music, they want to learn and play the best. This is very rare to see elsewhere in Asia.In Taiwan, it’s comparatively unfortunate that music was controlled and limited by the government before 1990s. Jazz started growing fast in the last 20 years, but Gypsy jazz does not exist. There is only one person, a friend of mine, who is seriously playing in Taiwan and trying to teach Gypsy jazz to others.Nowadays the Taiwanese people explore the music they like. They go to music schools in the States or in Europe. But here in Japan, there still are music scenes like bluegrass or traditional jazz swing. Music schools don’t offer programs for these kind of music styles. If you want to learn those, you need to listen to lots of music and study history.
 
Have you been playing in any other places in Asia?
I have been to Hong Kong and I am going to play in Malaysia’s “No Black Tie” Club with a local musician, Az Samad. It is going to be a mix of my music and traditional Malaysian musical instruments.
 
 
How did you get to learn the authentic Gypsy jazz?
When I started to learn this music 40 years ago, there was only one Gypsy jazz band in Montreal. I went to see them very often. Once they told me “we can never play like Gypsies, because we are not them”. That tickled me what that truly meant. Fortunately, I speak French, so it’s easier for me to get to the Gypsy community. I found out their music has a certain accent, just like a language. There are sounds that are unique from authentic Gypsies. I was so obsessed by that, and I wanted to achieve that authentic essence.
 
Do you speak Romani – the language of Gypsies? Does that help you to get to the true essence of Gypsy jazz?
That certainly helps. Gypsy people are very friendly, open-minded. This personality is reflected in their music, it’s raw. In the past, Gypsy people would not think too seriously of how to learn the music. They just grabbed the guitars and played. It’s a part of the community life.
 
Can you tell us more about your DC school?
I teach all kinds of music. In 2011, a friend encouraged me to start an online music school, so I tried. Since 2015, I started to invite students to stay at my place and study music together.
 
Do you think when Django played music, he also got inspired by some other music during that time?
The music that Gypsies played depended on which countries they came from. At the time when Django got popular, Gypsies didn’t travel as much as they used to. However, there were racial discrimination against them, so they could only create jobs for themselves to survive. They created the job of playing music in popular clubs in France and they needed to carry the instruments around. They knew how to please audiences so they could earn tips. At that time, they played popular dance music, like Waltz; French music.
 
 
Besides concerts, workshops, lessons, is there anything disruptive that you would like to do with Gypsy jazz?
If people from each country can use their own instruments to play Gypsy jazz, to create their own identities, that would be cool.
 
Why Gypsy picking technique and transcribing are so important?
Actually in the past, Gypsy people didn’t care much about picking, they used any technique to make the music sound good, powerful and articulate. I don’t say there is a particular technique, everyone should have their own style.
 
Do you have some advice for young people wishing to approach this kind of music?
Transcribing is like figuring music by ear, how to listen intelligently. When you hear a chord, how can you create something magic with your instrument? Train your ears and listen to lots of music as if you were acquiring languages. Whether you transcribe or even copy a whole Django solo, the most important thing is how that music make sense to you; you got to learn what’s going on, how and why the rhythm is.
 
 
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